Block Telesales Calls NOW
Receive no more
GUS VAN SANT COUNTRY
Editor, Film Comment
You always know where you are in a Gus Van Sant movie, even if there "where" is someplace you've never been: a skid-row liquor store in Portland, Oregon, with a male clerk who sweetly yearns for the love of a dusky, unswervingly heterosexual drifter; the rented rooms, night streets, and chilly/spooky/deadpan-hilarious hallucinations of a drug-thieving outlaw crew; the streetcorners and open roads and vagabond dreams of a young hustler looking for family, home, love, or maybe just to "have a nice day." The first "where" was Mala Noche, the prodigiously gifted independent feature with which Van Sant made his directorial début in 1986. The second was Drugstore Cowboy, the masterpiece that won the National Society of Film Critics awards for Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay of 1989. Now comes My Own Private Idaho, starring River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves -- the director's first original screenplay and an utterly unique movie that confirms Gus Van Sant as the most accomplished and adventurous American film artist of his generation.
My Own Private Idaho is easy to synopsize, impossible to peg. Mike Waters (River Phoenix) is an amiable, none-too-bright young fellow who peddles his body around the Pacific Northwest. His best friend, Scott Favor (Keanu Reeves), also works the streets even though, unlike Mike, he's well born and well off -- the son of the mayor of Portland, no less. Mike secretly loves Scott. But Scott has a secret of his own: a determination, like that of Prince Hal in Shakespeare's Henry IV plays, to throw off the companionship of Mike and their fellow lowlifes -- including the Falstaff-like robber bum Bob Pigeon (William Richert) -- and assume the mantle of wealth, power, and respectability once his father dies. The film follows the two young men's itineraries on the fringes of society as, together and apart, they range from Idaho to Seattle to Portland and as far afield as Italy, trying to get a handle on the past and on the rest of their lives.
But no synopsis can begin to tell you how mercurial is the journey they take -- and we take as viewers of this film. My Own Private Idaho is an evocative, balladlike account of the timeless search for love and belonging. Yet it's also a shaggy-dog comedy, a meditation on some of the goofier aspects of innocence, an affectionately rueful look at the clownfaces of desire, a poem about Northwest spaces and weather and laidbackness, a serenely confident freefall through a galaxy of cinematic styles, a witty conflation of the imagery of Piero della Francesca and Walt Whitman and Richard Avedon, and essay on America the Beautiful as mundanely glorious landscape and one vast exploded nuclear family. And several dozen other extraordinary, invaluable things besides.
As a measure of how extraordinary, consider a passage from the opening sequence, out on an absolutely particular Idaho road to which the movie will return again and again as a kind of spiritual homebase. Mike has been standing there. Now he's lying there, a victim of narcolepsy (a susceptibility to sudden plunges into sleep brought on by an imbalance in body chemistry and submerged tides of stress). Dreaming, he flashes on a Pietá: his longlost mother is cradling him. Clouds stream overhead in time-lapse cinematography, and Mike himself is time-lapsed, since the Mike in the dream is not a child but Mike full-grown. "Everything's going to be all right," Mother promises, and the screen is filled with a supremely ambiguous image: an unpainted wood farmhouse, isolated against a hillside of empty fields -- at once pure and bleak, alluring and abandoned-looking, home or a hollow shell. Closeup of Mike's sleep-closed eye: we assume he is still lying across his mother's lap. Cut, astonishingly, to salmon leaping upriver...though there seems to be no river near our road....
It sounds bizarre to say so (and surely that suits Van Sant's idiosyncratic sense of humor just fine), but it's the shot of the salmon that leads us deepest into the imaginative play of Gus Van Sant's art and the complexity of his method and design here.
First off, the shot itself is exactly right. Thousands of people have filmed salmon leaping upstream, but no one else ever tilted the camera subtly on its axis to that the fishes' leaping arcs get translated into a mysteriously level, profoundly soothing progress across the screen.
Secondly, salmon make their way up particular streams, the ones that lead back to their specific place of birth, there to renew life by propagating the next generation. So the image reinforces Mike's own deepest purpose behind the quest that this film will describe.
Yet even as we accept the poetic logic of that, the cut to the salmon startles us and subliminally prepares for the fact that Van Sant is about to shift locations and moods. Indeed, the shot is followed by a title card, "Seattle" -- and in immediate retrospect we appreciate that salmon-as-official-symbol-of-the-Northwest constituted a bit of an in-joke (on, among other things, Van Sant's labeling as a "Northwest filmmaker").
The joke takes on yet another aspect within seconds: Van Sant cuts again to that shot of Mike's closed eye, the camera pulls back, and we realize that Mike -- far from dream-nestling in his mother's lap out in the countryside -- is now leaning back on a hotel-room chair, in the throes of orgasm as (shall we say) a sexual transaction approaches completion just below the frameline. All in all, those salmon (cue Sigmund Freud) have done yeoman service.